|Anchorage's Fourth Avenue Theatre as it looked in 1971|
A few months ago, a funeral was held in Anchorage for the city’s Fourth Avenue Theater, Austin “Cap” Lathrop’s opulent re-imagining of what the Lacey Street Theater might have been like had it been constructed a decade later.
Mark Twain, in response to a newspaper story about his demise, wrote that, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” The organizers of the Anchorage theater’s funeral are hopeful that their event is also an exaggeration — seeing it rather as a wake-up call to save the building from decades-long neglect.
During my college days in Anchorage, I spent quite a bit of time at the theater and have fond memories of it. I thought it might be appropriate to write a column about Cap Lathrop’s “other” art deco theater.
Lathrop came to Alaska in 1895 as part-owner of a small auxiliary sailboat that he and his partners used for freighting along the Alaska coast. He kept the “Cap” moniker after his maritime career ended and built a small Alaska empire based on shipping, mining, broadcasting and entertainment.
One of his ventures was a string of theaters located in Southcentral and Interior Alaska. His first art deco-styled theater was built here in Fairbanks — the Lacey Street Theater, completed in 1939.
He began a second art deco theater on Anchorage’s main street, Fourth Avenue, in 1941. The primary architect for both theaters was the well-known Seattle theater designer, Benjamin Priteca. Unfortunately, World War II intervened and work on the Anchorage theater ceased until the war’s end.
Faced with a five-year construction delay, Lathrop might have scaled back his plans for the new building. However, Elizabeth Tower, in her book, “Alaska’s First Homegrown Millionaire,” relates that the delay only added time for Lathrop to plan an even more elaborate theater.
Completed in 1947, the building is three stories high, 87-feet wide and 130-feet long. Built of reinforced concrete, the front facade is symmetrical with two uniformly-ornamented side bays flanking a slightly taller central bay. In the middle of the central bay stands a 40-foot tall pylon adorned with the theater’s name in art deco lettering. The exterior of the first story is finished with travertine marble, and a marquee extends over the sidewalk along the front of the building.
A penthouse was added in 1959, which is probably about the time the word “theatre” was added to the front of the building. (Lathrop preferred the British spelling.) The sign above the marquee announcing movies playing was also added at a later date.
The interior of the theater was even more opulent than the exterior, with walnut woodwork and bas-relief artwork (where elements of the artwork project slightly from the wall) highlighted with silver and gold. A lobby capable of holding 200 people greeted visitors, with one wall featuring a large bas-relief mural of Denali (formerly Mount McKinley). Curved stairs, with another bas-relief artwork depicting Alaska wildlife adorning the outside wall, led to balcony seating.
The auditorium could hold 960 people (at a time when Anchorage’s population was only about 5,000 people). On either side of the movie screen was a large floor-to-ceiling bas-relief mural depicting Alaska culture: sled-dogs, airplanes, riverboats and other Northern scenes. The ceiling had the Big Dipper inset with lights.
The Fourth Avenue Theater was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. It survived as a movie venue until the economic slump of the mid-1980s. Alaska businessman Robert Gottstein purchased the building in 1991, restored the theater and operated it as an event hall. It was purchased in 2009 by Peach Investments Company, and has sat vacant since then, boarded up and deteriorating.
- “Alaska’s First Homegrown Millionaire: Life and Times of Cap Lathrop.” Elizabeth Tower. Publication Consultants. 2006
- “Buildings of Alaska.” Alison Hoagland. Oxford University Press. 1993
- “Fourth Avenue Theatre, National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.” Michael Carberry. National Park Service. 1982
- “Fourth Avenue Theatre.” Sandra Faulkner. Historic American Buildings Survey. 1996
- “Fourth Avenue Theater shows signs of life at own funeral.” Lisa Maloney. “Anchorage Press.” 7-18-2016